I think we all want to be stars and enjoy the limelight. One place we can be a star is at our workplace. I watched a movie last week and was in no doubt that what I had witnessed was some exemplary performance by the lead actor. I did not need a film critic or my friends who had also seen the movie to tell me that. That’s how superb acting is - easy to tell. How about superb performance at the workplace? Do we know when we see it? Perhaps, not so easily!
Signs of star performance
Who is a star performer at the workplace? Is it the person who contributes the most in a team or the person team members turn to for help? Let’s look at some tests we can run to find out.
Once I had a consultant, let’s call him Suhas, whose work I was very happy with. When I mentioned this to Suhas’ manager he said it was only expected because Suhas was a high performer. Later when I had some other consultants from the same firm working for us, they mentioned how much they admired Suhas and his work. I did not know it then, but what I had experienced was a star performer in action at the workplace. So, the first test is whether you are considered an excellent performer not only by your manager, but also by your peers and customers. I like to call this the ‘Acceptance by all test’. This test’s beauty is that it rules out those high producers whose tactics are such that while producing they harm the organization/team, thus negating any positive contribution that they make.
The second test is whether the person consistently exceeds expectations ie., not only exceeds expectations in one project or in a quarter but in all projects and in every quarter. This is the ‘Consistency test'. It helps rule out people who hit a century in a match but fail to accumulate a high average of runs. Indications? - Numerous and not one off awards, honors, performance bonuses, patents, publication credits etc.
The final test is the ‘Productivity test’. It is not about whether he/she dreams, talks or plans well but whether he/she actually produces a lot compared to his peers. Is his/her contribution towards the organization and team’s success substantial? Simply put, does he/she make a mark?
I think we can safely say that if a person passes all of the above tests he/she be considered a star. However what makes stars shine brighter than others. Are they smarter? Do they relate to people better? Apparently it’s none of these.
Strategies for consistently delivering a stellar performance
Robert Kelley, a Carnegie Mellon professor has written a book called ‘How to be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed’. It is the result of 10 years of scientific investigation at companies like 3M and AT&T. Kelley examined how stars operate, searching for some differentiating factor between the ‘average’ worker and the ‘star’. His surprising conclusion was that there is no difference with regard to cognitive factors (IQ, creativity), personality (self-confidence, ambition) and social factors (interpersonal skills, leadership). Stars are just like you or me, but they use certain work strategies that can be learned.
Here are the strategies that Kelley identified. While at a glance some of the strategies may seem commonplace, a star’s approach to them is different.
In addition to these I would say the following strategies will also help.
- Initiative: Average performers think initiative is doing one’s job well by figuring out better ways to do it, like using a tape recorder to take down a meeting’s minutes. For stars however that is not initiative but doing one’s job. For them Kelley says initiative means doing something above and beyond your job description, helping other people, taking some amount of calculated risks and seeing an activity through to completion. So, before you take on anything new, make sure that you're doing your assigned job well. Social initiatives like organizing the company picnic cannot be considered initiative. The initiatives that matter to your career are those that promote the company's core mission.
- Networking: Stars use networks to multiply their productivity. They figure out who can supply what ‘they don't know but need to know’ and cultivate relationships with those people. Stars’ approach to networking is different from average performers. They don’t consider the help their network can extend as their right and call someone they don't know well and simply demand help. Instead they help out a lot of people before asking anyone for help in return. For this you have to have expertise that people need but don't already have and be patient.
- Self Management: While average performers see self-management as time management, stars see it as managing not only one’s work but also one’s relationships with people and ones’ career over time. The average performer after finishing a project go to the boss and ask, "What do you want me to do next?" .The star starts looking around six months before a project is done and asks, " What assignment should I tackle next that would make me more valuable for the company/in the marketplace?" Stars select their next project before they finish the current one and then try to bag the ‘identified’ assignment. To manage yourself better, understand the company goals and align yourself with its core business, so that you contribute more directly to its larger purpose. You can’t become a star by changing who you are. So turn ‘how you work’ into an advantage. Continuously learn and never think you ‘know it all’. Stars recognize the value of seeking out strong mentors and peers. They are not afraid to ask for help and guidance.
- Organisation savvy: This means knowing whom to trust, whom to avoid, who make things happen in the organization and knowing how to navigate all of the competing interests within the organization. It means paying attention to conflicts. You can develop organization savvy by keeping your eyes open to what goes on in the organisation. Observe the stars and learn what works and what doesn't work in your environment.
- Getting the big picture: Average performers see the world only from their viewpoint. Star performers see things in a much bigger way. They adopt different perspectives that of competitors, customers, colleagues and boss etc. Though perspective comes partly from experience, it's something you can work on. After each project, ask yourself “What did I learn?” .Then seek out an assignment that will give you a different kind of experience - even if conventional wisdom says it's not a high profile job. Take process administration. People don't like to do it, because it's kind of boring. You are maintaining existing processes and not creating anything new. Most average performers think of it as drudgery that won't help them get ahead. But lots of stars do their time in process administration. It gives them a chance to see a lot of processes. They can apply the learning to create new and improved processes in the future.
- Followership: Followership means knowing that everyone can't always lead and that one has to help those in charge to do the best they can. If they think the leader is going off in the wrong direction, they know how to disagree without being disagreeable and without undermining the leader's authority with the team. To be a good follower, focus on the project's needs and on the leader's needs. Don't try to score a brownie point for yourself, instead try to make wins happen for the team. Also, being a good follower means figuring out what to do before being told, finding out how to do as much as you can without bothering your boss etc.
- Small ‘l’ leadership: This type of leadership is not about having a big vision or a charismatic personality but about the ability to bring people together to get things done. They do this by being knowledgeable, creating momentum, bringing energy to the job, creating energy in other people and paying attention to everyone who's involved. To be a small-l leader, start by understanding the people who are following you. Then do everything possible to build momentum. Make sure that meetings get called, that the agenda gets set, and that things don't slip through the cracks.
- Communication: Stars don’t over communicate, they communicate thoughtfully. They understand how powerful words can be. They know how to use the right message with the right audience at the right time. They do this by understanding the audience and using the language which will move them. Average performers don't listen well. As a result, they miss necessary insights on the business and about their own effectiveness which stars don’t.
- Team work: Stars look at teams differently from others. They say, "I've got only so much time. Do I absolutely need this team - or does this team absolutely need me - to make something important happen?" And once stars are on a team, they become very good team players- making sure that everyone on the team knows and buys into its goals, that the work gets distributed in a way that makes sense and that's fair to everyone, that the team actually gets the job done.
- Doing what you love: You can do a job well when you like what you are doing. Of course it may not be always possible due to economic considerations. How about then taking up something close to what you would love to do. Say you love to paint, but can’t make enough money out of it. Then try finding a job which gives you an opportunity to be creative.
- Putting in10,000 hours: Malcom Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers, The story of Success’ examined what the stars in business, science , sports and music have in common. His discovery? Every one of them had put in 10,000 hours of practice as compared to their peers who had the same talent as them. This means the more you do something, the better the chances of achieving extraordinary results in it.
And if you think implementing all the above strategies requires too much effort, then just consider the rewards enjoyed typically by star performers in organizations.
- Others’ admiration: While the pride of doing a job well and better than others is rewarding in itself admiration from others is always welcome. Family is proud of the ‘Well done’ plaque displayed at home. Friends rejoice at your achievements.
- Job security: Research shows that people at the top of any profession will always have a well-paying, secure job.
- Monetary benefits: Stars get rewarded with higher performance bonus, higher salary increments associated with increase in responsibility levels etc.
- Self confidence: Being patted on the back increases one’s confidence in one’s abilities. Ever felt self confident about something and experienced a sense of well being. Imagine feeling that most of the times at the workplace.
- High work engagement: You won’t hear an “I don’t know what I am doing with my life,” complaint from stars. While they may not have a plan for the future, the stars usually feel they are in the right place just now.
- More control: The stars enjoy more discretion in choosing their work. They get to pick the best projects, locations, departments and team members.
Now tell me who doesn’t want to be a star performer at the workplace? There is a star in each one of you. Make it shine!
Kelley , R. E, ‘How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed’,Times Books, 1998
Gladwell , M,‘Outliers: The story of success’,2008,Penguin Group